We take them for granted. What kind of museum would we like to visit today? Art, history, science, maritime, toys, technology, transport, textile, archaeology, military, jewelry, or thousands more? Where can we find museums to visit on any day? Everywhere in the world.
The Institute of Museum and Library recently announced that there are 35,144 museums in the United States alone, counting 850 million visits each year as opposed to only 140 million attendees at major league sporting events. Most museums in every country are now open to the public (with purchased ticket), and there are many reasons to explore the contents of them. One of the most prevalent is to learn about a subject or era; another is pure enjoyment of viewing the specialized contents that the museum is dedicated to preserve and protect.
But it was not always so. From ancient times, the most rare, curious, and valuable artifacts were the private property of wealthy individuals or families and seen by only a select few who could visit their dwellings. The oldest such museum in evidence is Ennigaldi-Nanna's museum, dating from c. 530 BC and devoted to Mesopotamian antiquities. Ennigaldi-Nanna was the priestess of the moon deity Sin and daughter of the Neo-Babylonian king, Nabonidus. She meticulously organized and labeled artifacts from many different time periods and places creating a fascinating and informative collection that was discovered in 1925 by archaeologist Leonard Woolley while excavating a Babylonian palace.
Even as late as the European renaissance, beautiful and exotic collections were still in the hands of wealthy individuals who would select and invite other “chosen ones” to view and share private treasures. These occasions were an honor for all involved, often solidifying social status. Other precious collections were owned by royalty and the Church — the largest and now most famous Louvre Museum in Paris opened to the public in 1793 by nationalizing art and artifacts previously owned by both. In fact the original museum (long before “the Pyramid” addition that keeps everyone lost and begging for directions) was a series of buildings that were part of the palace complex belonging to French kings. The Catholic Church’s Vatican Museum in Rome houses one of the wealthiest collections in the world both for monetary holdings and rarity and quality of art, some of the art executed by the most accomplished and famous in world history such as Michelangelo’s “Sistine Chapel.”
Museums have changed a great deal over the centuries to accommodate changing times. As they once were the “home” of prized private possessions and later opened to a select few and then to the general public, they are a good indication of the present state of the culture in any country. The great Metropolitan Museum in New York City, for example has offerings from pre-history, ancient Egypt and Greece, the famed renaissance “Golden Age,” on up to Impressionist and modernist artists of the 19th, 20th, and now the 21st century. Serious educational courses are offered by the dozens, restaurants, drinking spaces with music, and gift shops abound. In addition, many contemporary “artists” are given special venues to display their “talents” or produce interactive events that the Met calls their “immersive performances,” which can be rather inane. Like the Met, most museums in every country now cater to consumerism, mass numbers, and blockbuster exhibit-events to draw ever bigger crowds. Often quality gives way to quackery for the sake of novelty like the Brooklyn Museum’s past display of a Madonna painting covered with feces.
Visitors to museums also have changed. Where past academics sought knowledge in a particular field and 19th-century nouveau riche Americans toured Europe’s museums to advance aesthetic taste and refinement, now hoards of uninformed visitors the world over swarm the aisles and pose in front of some of the most magnificent artwork in history, never looking at the art at all but taking photographic “selfies” to prove by social media postings that they were “there.” This behavior, of course, blocks the viewing of art from serious visitors.
The downgrading of museum experiences is a shame but indicative of the shallowness and self-absorption of today’s population everywhere. This should beckon a wake-up call to those who still cherish the intellectual and spiritual value of history, of technical progress, of human invention, and of artistic merit and beauty. Museums are the stewards of cultures, values, and ideas. Many of them still stand as shining citadels enshrining human endeavors and achievements. But most are now corroded by populist antics and attractions that seek not to enlighten the true seeker of life’s meanings but to entertain the ill-mannered and aimless masses.
Such revealing cultural phenomena as museums are worth pondering precisely because they are physical manifestations of the zeitgeist — the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual tenor — of the times. In a declining culture like America today (and much of the rest of Western civilization), as most of these institutions become more commercial and less significant, they signal a warning for mature, thinking individuals to judiciously monitor their own tastes and demeanor for personal development and public civility . . . and even more so that of their very malleable children who already face stiff challenges to healthy growth via distracting devices, idle pleasures, and political correctness.
The past sings in museums, but the future stings for the sophisticated and the serious. Sojourns into fine museums can still be a replenishing experience for many willing to put up with all the hype and hoopla. Yet, around the world the “souls” of different cultures are exhibited in museums as their offerings hang in the balance between the lingering splendor of the past and the increasing silliness of current public inclinations. Museums are the secular “churches” of today, so let us all be aware and beware of what we worship.
Alexandra York is an author and founding president of the American Renaissance for the Twenty-first Century (ART) a New-York-City-based nonprofit educational arts and culture foundation (www.art-21.org). She has written for many publications, including "Reader’s Digest" and The New York Times. Her latest book is "Adamas." For more on Alexandra York, Go Here Now.
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